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Police and Crime Commissioners (Wales)

Volume 570: debated on Wednesday 6 November 2013

Thank you, Mr Amess, for the opportunity to debate the powers and performance of police and crime commissioners in Wales.

Public confidence in the police authority that covers my constituency has been rated as among the lowest in the country. As recently as 2008, Gwent police were working to raise public confidence in their service from a very low 39%. Even now, just 53% of people are satisfied with the service that they receive, which is one of the lowest rates in the country. For a service built on giving the public the confidence to sleep soundly at night, that is shockingly low, and that is why I am in favour of the PCC role. It is a link between the public and the police who serve them, and a check and a balance that is independent of the police. If the job is not being done well, the public have the final say. Those are principles that we as Members of Parliament can appreciate.

However, many have argued that there is no appetite from the public for PCCs. For example, the Welsh turnout for the PCC elections was a meagre 14.9%, with a polling station in the Gwent area reporting a turnout of zero. One year on, those poor figures still colour many opinions of PCCs. So why is there a troubled mandate? Well, the original November polling day was the worst possible time to hold an election; the large areas covered by each police authority make traditional campaigning very difficult; and this was compounded by the Government’s decision not to use freepost leaflets. It all adds up to a system set up to return pretty meagre results. Having said that, let us stop using the small turnout as a stick with which to beat PCCs.

My hon. Friend described the turnout as meagre. Does he recall the sensational world record low turnout at a polling station in my constituency, where there was a nil vote?

My hon. Friend amplifies the point very well.

We should judge PCCs on their ability to restore confidence in the police in the future, not on the botched system that installed them. The charity, Victim Support, encouraged PCCs to sign pledges to champion the victims of crime. It asked for the police to be more victim-focused and more effective at meeting their needs, and to give victims and witnesses a strong voice in the wider criminal justice system. Those are the sorts of issues that we should be considering when deciding whether PCCs have been worth it.

Unfortunately, Gwent’s PCC has been making headlines by not following another principle that Victim Support alluded to: the need for PCCs to be both open and accountable. Anyone following the story of PCCs across the country will be disappointed with the saga of Gwent PCC Ian Johnston and his turbulent first year. Mr Johnston instigated the retirement of Chief Constable Carmel Napier on May 23, despite the fact that Gwent police reported crime figures that at one point in 2012 showed the highest reduction in England and Wales—15% overall.

A lack of openness has threatened to damage the PCC role. First, Mr Johnston’s request for the chief constable to retire was revealed only in a leak to our local newspaper. When asked why this had taken place, Mr Johnston said that it was in part because there had been doubts about the crime figures produced by Gwent police. Although we all agree that that sort of scrutiny is exactly what we expect from a PCC, since then, colleagues and I have been demanding evidence that the figures were a case of statistical sleight of hand.

Is my hon. Friend familiar with the evidence given by PCCs and deputies to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs on 11 July in Cardiff? The North Wales PCC gave me some very evasive and, at worst, misleading answers about his residency and whether he lived in Cardiff or in north Wales, in Caernarfon.

I heard about that case. It is up to the Minister to look into the issue of the residency of the North Wales PCC. It is important, and has been raised at various times by colleagues.

Six months on, Mr Johnston has produced no statistical evidence that the impressive crime figures that we heard about in Gwent were not accurate. Instead, in a letter to me, Mr Johnston has said that he had heard reports from members of the public

“that officers seemed preoccupied with numerical targets and talked about a limit on the number of crimes that could be recorded each day”,

and found

“that the Chief Constable was pursuing a numerical target driven culture that focussed on the volume of crime.”

An internal review of crime recording has been set up since the chief constable’s retirement, but I am not convinced that that is sufficient. In the meantime, through press articles and the questioning of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, a picture was painted of a difficult working relationship between Mr Johnston and Ms Napier.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems thrown up by the Gwent saga is the fact that the PCC has been intervening in what are effectively operational police matters? He has seen himself as a chief constable in waiting as well as a PCC, which points to a weakness in the legislation. There is not a clear definition of what is strategic and what is operational.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will ask the Minister about the Government’s and MPs’ scrutiny of PCCs and their role.

Everything is coming out in dribs and drabs, and it has threatened to undermine the public’s confidence in Gwent police, and the voters’ confidence in the PCC role. Our PCCs must appreciate that although they are in a position of authority, they are not above authority. They must face tough questions, too. The furore around policing in Gwent is reducing, and a new chief constable, Jeff Farrar, has been appointed. Having seen his work on Operation Jasmine, an investigation into terrible care home abuse, I am confident that he will be an asset as the head of Gwent police.

As we move forward, I propose three things. The lines of communication from the PCC must be as open and detailed as possible. In Gwent, having to drag out information from the PCC has been a painful process, and that cannot be right. It benefits no one if information is hard to obtain. That was the old system, which we should be moving away from. That is particularly relevant, given that police forces face Conservative cuts of 20%, which go too far, too fast.

The Welsh Labour Government are doing all that they can by funding 500 new police community support officers during their Assembly term, and by protecting the community safety budget, but it may not be enough. A PCC who is open and transparent could go a long way to help staff and the public understand the difficult decisions that will be taken at this difficult time.

Secondly, from a Gwent perspective—this is the nub—we need confidence in the data collection and performance measurements used to review our police. We have all heard constituents’ concerns that the figures do not translate to what they see on the streets. As their elected representative, Mr Johnston needs to look into the public’s concerns and regain the confidence of all of us. Let us see whether the Gwent police internal review of crime recording ever comes to anything.

Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary’s visit to Gwent as part of its national crime data integrity programme would be a perfect opportunity, once and for all, to look into the claim that crime reporting was being capped in Gwent. Will the Minister consider that?

Finally, let us measure PCCs against criteria such as victim satisfaction levels within the justice services in the coming year.

I have no disagreement with my hon. Friend about the qualities of the new chief constable. Does he recall that the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), asked the police commissioner:

“Would you be surprised if people decided not to apply to come to Gwent given the circumstances surrounding the departure of the Chief Constable? Do you expect a good field of candidates?”?

The commissioner replied:

“I think we will get a very good pool of talent from which to select the next Chief Constable.”

Does my hon. Friend not think that it would have been advisable to ensure that there was a large pool of talent and a choice, rather than what we had, which was one candidate for the job?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is always best when the top jobs are filled through good competition. Having said that, I think that Chief Constable Farrar will do a good job in the future.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again; he has been very generous. On the last year of performance and the powers of the police commissioners in Wales, does he agree with me that one of the crucial things that we have seen is the variety in performance levels and willingness to be transparent, particularly with the public? I have had a very positive experience in south Wales with both the police commissioner—my predecessor in this place—and his deputies. He has had a positive role with other people in the community, but I know that that has not necessarily always been the case with other commissioners. The Dyfed Powys commissioner was also very transparent when he came before the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is variation in performance and willingness to be open with the public, Members of this House and others?

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point on something that needs to be taken on board not just in Wales, but across the UK. We and the public will judge the PCCs on their roles in the years to come.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one lesson that must be learned from the developments in Gwent during the past 12 months is that the PCCs have incredible powers? In Gwent, the chief constable was in effect dismissed in a way that was legitimate according to the law, but which negated any kind of natural justice. She was basically told to retire: “If you don’t retire, you’ll be sacked.” What is more, that was without any established employment procedures or practice at all. Again, that was done under the legislation, but it does create a big question mark, because I do not think that any other post in the public sector has as much unaccountable power as a PCC.

Yes. My hon. Friend makes the point very powerfully. That is what happened in the Gwent area, and I think that we still need to unpick what happened on that occasion. That is why we need to have that extra, important look at crime data recording in Gwent and get to the bottom of that question, which is at the core of Ms Napier’s resignation. It is now up to the Government to detail how they will scrutinise the role of PCCs in Gwent and across the country.

It is always a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Amess. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on obtaining the debate. He raised a number of interesting and legitimate questions relating to the powers and performance of police and crime commissioners in Wales, and I will seek to respond to all of them. I hope that he will agree with me that police officers and staff in the whole of Wales—not just in Gwent—are making a significant contribution to the successful fight against crime. In that context, I am grateful for his support for the role of the PCC.

Given all the points made by the hon. Gentleman and by other hon. Members about PCCs and policing, I shall start by talking about the context in which the PCCs operate. The Government inherited a policing landscape disconnected from the public. There was a lack of local democratic accountability, as the public had no direct involvement in the old police authorities. At the same time, there was too much central Government interference through centrally imposed targets that stifled police professionalism and discretion, and there was too little Government focus on tackling national concerns such as organised crime.

Reform was necessary, but it had to take place against a very tough financial background. Despite that background, we have embarked on the most radical reform of policing in 50 years. The reform is aimed—PCCs are central to this—at ensuring that the police are more responsive to the public and more transparent in their work. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about transparency and I will deal with that in detail in a second. The reform is also aimed at ensuring that the police are more flexible in their approach and more suited to the demands of the 21st century.

At this stage, it is clear from the figures that matter that the reforms are working. Crime is down to the lowest level ever recorded. Let me narrow the focus to Gwent. In the period from June 2010 to June 2013, crime in Gwent went down by 29%. In the past year, since the election of the police and crime commissioner, it has fallen by 4%. I will not weary hon. Members with the figures for the other three police regions in Wales, but they are all consistent with that.

Gwent has had the biggest fall of any of the police regions in Wales, but all of them show significant falls, both over a three-year period and over the past 12 months. The test that we in the Government put on the police is now a simple one. We swept away all the targets; we just ask them to cut crime, and they are doing so. They are doing so across Wales and in particular in Gwent. Everyone involved is to be congratulated on that.

Of course, we have not reached the end of the reform process—one never does. The reforms continue, and the next and most radical phase of police reform is aimed at transforming front-line policing. We want every police officer to fulfil their potential and to feel a greater sense of professional pride, so that the public get a better service. The impetus for change now lies both with the police and with the PCCs.

The Minister will have noticed that the trend of reducing crime was accelerating before the arrival of the PCCs, but does he really think that a level of support for a candidate of, say, between 6% and 8% of the total vote is any kind of meaningful democratic involvement?

I agree with the point, which many people have made, that one would have wished the turnout to be higher. It was not ideal, but the fact was that 5 million people cast votes in last year’s elections and that is approximately 5 million more than ever had a say in the police authorities that the PCCs replaced. Police authorities were unaccountable, invisible bodies. Now, people have the chance to elect the police and crime commissioner.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the senior Dyfed Powys police officer who told me that it might be between two and five years before we are able properly to assess the benefits or otherwise of police and crime commissioners? Perhaps it will be then that we will see whether there is public appreciation of them and voter turnout might be somewhat different.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the length of time. Now that we are more or less up to the first anniversary of the PCCs, we can see what each of them has done and can make a realistic assessment of their effectiveness, rather than simply looking at the turnout in the elections last November.

Let me deal with some of the specific issues that the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent and others brought up. One was transparency. I find it difficult to accept the criticism that PCCs are in any way less transparent than the system before. I defy any Member of the House to have gone out before last November, asked their constituents who the chair of the police authority was and expected more than one in a million to know the answer. They were completely invisible; we know that.

Specific criticism was made of the police and crime commissioner in Gwent. I have been on his website and found that, on the page entitled “Transparency”, he says:

“As well as the information we have a legal responsibility to provide under the…Act…and The Elected Local Policing Bodies (Specified Information) Order…we have…agreed to make the agendas and minutes of the Strategy and Performance Board…and the Joint Audit Committee…available. The SPB is where the Commissioner holds the Chief Constable to account and the JAC provides comments, advice and assurance on matters relating to the internal control environment of both the Chief Constable and the Commissioner.”

There is a series of pages, whose titles include “Gifts and Hospitality”, “Register”, “Publications”, “Finance”, Performance”, “Decisions Made”, “Estates Register” and “Complaints Information”.

The document is transparent. A person does not even need to be in Gwent to see it; they can sit in London and find out quite a lot of detail about what the police and crime commissioner in Gwent is doing. I gently suggest to the House that none of that would have been available 12 months ago, because police authorities did not have to do that sort of thing.

I perfectly accept the anonymous nature of police authorities before PCCs came along. However, does the Minister not accept that we only found out that the PCC in Gwent had effectively sacked the chief constable—made her resign—because of a leak in the local newspaper?

I will return to the departure of Carmel Napier; I said that I would deal with each individual issue that came up.

Regarding the point about Winston Roddick, I think there was some feeling in the intervention and response of the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) that a cloud hung over Mr Roddick in some way. There had been an allegation that he did not live in the area for which he had been elected. The Independent Police Complaints Commission found no evidence to support that allegation and therefore did not pass on the investigation file. Its report said:

“Considering the evidence provided by witnesses, voters and credit checks, the supporting mobile phone cell site analysis and the account provided by Mr Roddick, in my opinion, there is no evidence that a criminal offence may have been committed by Mr Roddick.”

I think we should put the matter to bed.

Is the Minister aware of the complaint that has been made by four of the five candidates for the north Wales police and crime commissioner elections in recent days—both about the IPCC decision and about other matters that have come out as a result of that investigation? Notwithstanding what he has just said, will he look further into the matter?

The point about the IPCC—the clue is in its title—is that it is independent. It is not for me or any Minister to intervene in its investigations. It is independent. It looked into that complaint, and I have just read out its verdict.

Regarding the situation in north Wales, surely the Minister will agree that it is at least morally wrong that a Liberal Democrat candidate was elected but never declared that he was a Liberal Democrat. That was the case with Mr Roddick.

What candidates choose to describe themselves as at elections is, perhaps happily, not a matter for Ministers. I merely observe a point that has been made by many others after people have claimed that being an independent means that one is not a politician: being an independent means that someone is a politician who will not tell people what their politics are, which is what I have always believed.

The point is a serious one. In the dark age before 1987, when my constituency had a Conservative Member of Parliament, a certain Winston Roddick had stood and described himself as a Liberal Democrat. He stood in north Wales as an independent, and then metamorphosed into a Liberal Democrat overnight. Is that not likely to bring the whole process into disrepute?

There is a long history of people changing parties throughout long political careers—indeed, the greatest ever Englishman—Winston Churchill—did it. I feel that it is not necessarily for the House to comment on the issue.

Many PCCs have done extremely good work. In Gwent, Ian Johnston has actively promoted a drug intervention programme, which has seen a 15% rise in participants over the past year. I shall be non-partisan about the issue. Only one of the four PCCs in Wales is in my party, but I have examples of all of PCCs doing good work.

In south Wales, Alun Michael has launched a number of evidence-based initiatives with partners—for example, working with two health trusts to analyse and reduce the number of violent incidents that result in victims being taken to A and E. In north Wales, Mr Roddick has asked the chief constable to devise an operational delivery plan to tackle rural crime, with a rural crime team already in place to act as a contact point for farmers and residents. In Dyfed Powys, Chris Salmon has worked with his chief constable so that all stations there now operate on a “when we’re in, we’re open” principle—if a member of the public calls at a station when an officer is in, the caller will be attended to.

The point that I made about public scrutiny bears repeating. PCCs are subject to public scrutiny in a way that police authorities never were. The public now know whom to turn to and whom to hold responsible if they have concerns regarding policing in their area. We know that 73% of the public in England and Wales are now aware of the role of PCCs, which contrasts with the 7% of the public who knew what to do if they had a complaint under the old police authorities.

The Minister has been generous in giving way. What is his relationship with the PCCs in Wales? What specific concerns have they raised with him to which he has been able to respond positively? Is he able to give any examples? For example, has he discussed police funding for south Wales and Cardiff as the capital city?

I regularly meet all the PCCs. I have met the PCCs in Wales as a group. They are, as all people are, energetic in pleading their own cause. I always listen as sympathetically as is sensible.

It is interesting to note the change in the amount of public correspondence that the PCCs receive. Some have reported a fiftyfold increase in public correspondence over the year to date compared with the old police authorities. The public are engaging with the PCCs, and the PCCs are becoming key local leaders across the whole criminal justice system.

I should deal with the case of Carmel Napier, because that was an important part of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent’s speech. First, I should, as I am sure others who know her would want to, thank Carmel Napier for three decades of service to the police and for her leadership—not just in Gwent, but at a national level—on improving the police response to violence against women and girls.

It is clear under the legislation that it is for police and crime commissioners, not Ministers or Members of Parliament, to make decisions about appointing, suspending and removing chief constables. The process for a PCC to remove a chief constable is set out in legislation and, contrary to some of the points made earlier, includes strict safeguards. There is a police and crime panel, which has a wide remit to review or scrutinise decisions made by a PCC.

As has been mentioned, the PCC has the power to appoint a new chief constable, and has done so in Gwent this week. It is for the commissioner to determine who is best placed to lead the local constabulary. That is provided for in legislation. For the first time, there are confirmation hearings and proper public scrutiny of the event, which in the past happened behind closed doors and in secret.

May I finish this passage? I have been generous in giving way.

The Home Office has issued a circular to advise PCCs and chief constables of the principles and legal requirements for appointing chief officers. In addition, as part of its role in supporting PCCs and chief constables, the College of Policing has developed guidance and a toolkit for making senior appointments. The college also supports PCCs by providing details of career history, skills and qualifications of prospective chief constables to ensure that commissioners have as much information as they need.

The Minister has been generous in giving way. Given the controversy over crime recording in Gwent, will he consider asking Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to look into the claim that crime figures were capped in Gwent?

That was the final point I was determined to get to before I sat down. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that HMIC is in the process of conducting a review of crime recording integrity—precisely his point. That review is of all forces, so it will include Gwent. The integrity of the crime figures in Gwent is being investigated by HMIC as we speak. It will break the investigation down into two parts.

One detail is missing from the Minister’s answer. Will the HMIC please look into the capping of crime figures in Gwent?

As I said, HMIC is conducting a general investigation into integrity, and it will no doubt be aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concern.

I hope that I have been able to respond to all the concerns raised by hon. Members. The reforms will continue. I want to see PCCs take a greater role in cross-cutting issues, leading to less wasted police time and bureaucracy and a better use of technology. We want to see more force collaboration and greater public understanding of how their local force functions. We want PCCs in Wales to build on their—

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).